Monday, June 7, 2010

South Africa's Women Tribal Chiefs Often Rule in Fear

My story on the women chiefs made the front page of TIME.COM.

South Africa's Women Tribal Chiefs Often Rule in Fear

Good things come to those who wait. :)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Silent all these months

I've been very quiet for a while, but I'm still here. The truth is, my car broke down, and me with it, and it's taken me a bit of time to pull myself back together. But I'm whole again - or as whole as one can ever be - and I'm back at my desk ready to write up the last month of my search for the Rainbow's End. I hope you enjoy it as it unfolds.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

An unholy alliance?

This morning I read two articles in the Daily Dispatch (in my view, the best newspaper in South Africa) that convinced me a face-off is brewing in the old Transkei between the disempowered rural poor and the ruling ANC.

This new struggle is divided into two camps: the rural youth vs the government, and the tribal leaders vs the government. Over the past couple of months I’ve interviewed angry, disappointed people from both camps. They are not united. If anything, they are deeply divided. It’s unlikely they would form an unholy alliance, but if they did, it wouldn’t be peaceful.

In the one camp are the tribal leaders, frustrated because they feel they've been disempowered by the ANC government. During the apartheid years, and back into days of yore, they ruled the rural areas. Since the first democratic elections of 1994, the chiefs’ status has become a bit muddy. They have been given small government salaries (R2,700/month for a headman; R10,000/month for chiefs), but they've also been stripped of some administrative duties while decision-making over development has been handed to municipal councillors.

This might sound fair in a democratic country, but unfortunately many municipal councillors are like the bad chiefs of the past – those that infamously sold coastal land to white holiday makers for bottles of brandy, and those that signed over communal grazing land to mining companies for a few thousand "personal" rands a year. There’s hundreds of stories of tenders for new roads, clinics etc being granted to the brothers/uncles/friends of municipal councillors, only for the roads, clinics etc never, ever to be built.

“In Lusikisiki, they are shooting each other over tenders,” says the Queen Sigcau of Pondoland. “The tender system allows corruption to happen. That’s why the roads are ruined. You will find that the tender for the road from one hospital to the Great Place has been awarded every year and nothing has happened and there is no follow up. The money will disappear, the roads will never be done, and you will see heaps of crushed stone on the side of the road. No one seems to care.”

Into this hotbed of frustration, comes a very strange threat, which is escalating. Since the beginning of this year, King Dalindyebo, king of the abaThembu tribe to which Nelson Mandela belongs, has been threatening to secede Thembuland from the rest of South Africa. Dalindyebo didn’t make this threat because he’s angry with the way the government is treating the traditional leaders. No. He made the threat because of the way they’ve treated him personally.

Last year, King Dalindyebo was sentenced to 15 years for serious crimes including arson, assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm, kidnapping and defeating the ends of justice at the Mthatha High Court. He regards his criminal conviction an insult to the abaThembu nation, and unless the government pays R80 billion as recompense for humiliating him.

Now in the beginning, many traditional leaders took this as a joke. In fact, the Thembu traditional leaders begged that the media give this no more attention. But the King will not rest and last weekend, in a meeting where only those pro-secession were allowed to speak, he said the government of South Africa was a weapon of oppression and the ANC was the new National Party occupying the land of the Thembus illegally. He also added that those who did not support him would be seen to be disrespectful of him as a monarch (reported in the Daily Dispatch).

The question is: is there is enough frustration among traditional leaders and rural youth for this to amount to something more than a threat from a powerful criminal?

The rural youth tend to be anti the chiefs. “It’s not right to have chiefs. In the years to come, it would be easier to have no more chiefs because they use us for their interest, to fight against each other. I do not like them,” says Lungelwa Shaun Mabongo, 26 General Secretary of the youth league in Jumba Tribal Authority, where there is a dispute over the chieftaincy.

But their anger and despondency at lack of opportunities is also escalating. And last week fuel was added to this fire, when young people were refused the right to register for a Youth Imbizo at University of Fort Hare's Alice campus, where opportunities for learnerships and other skills would be on offer - unless they joined the ANC youth league.

“I refused to join and he refused to put my name and ID number on the list,” said Amanda Mabandla, reported in the Daily Dispatch. “We seem to be having no choice, this ANC rules and we just have to follow what they do. I was told that they are the ones who are coming up with these opportunities,” said Lindikhaya Dywili.

The reality is, the ANC have done very little for young people who live out here, and surprise, surprise, the people have noticed. The muddy tracks of the Eastern Cape do not lead to Sandton, Chivas Regal shindigs, and Breitling watches. For these disenchanted youth, joining the ANC youth league, may seem even more of an unholy alliance.

As Simphiwe, a villager from Mbotyi spelt it out to me: “The life as I know it is worse. Instead of getting better, it’s worse. But the people who make the life worse are the black people. I can say it’s the black people. They understand where we are now, where we’ve been. So why are they not making the life better for us – why? That is a problem, you know."

They eat alone

I’ve been very quiet lately. Unfortunately trying to sell stories about what I’ve found in the old Transkei has been so much harder than I anticipated, and it’s dragged me down.

The hardest part has not been the editors that say no, I can accept a polite refusal, but being outright ignored. I guess in a world drowning in emails, it’s easy to get lost in the spam, but when you send again, and phone, and leave a message… how hard is it to send a "no thank you"?

But it got me thinking that perhaps this is another part of this journey: learning what it’s like to really, really be ignored.

The people I’m writing about, the people who teach in schools where there aren’t enough classrooms, the people whose local clinic last received life-saving ARV drugs in time for the April 2009 elections - they know how it feels to be ignored. To knock on doors, again and again and again, and have no one listen.

If I really want to understand life in rural South Africa, then maybe I needed to feel the same way.

At first you feel a bit disappointed, but hopeful. Then you feel a bit sad, but optimistic. Then you feel a bit tired, and you take a break. Then you try again, and you begin to doubt yourself. Then you panic. Then you feel angry. Then you feel really, really angry. And then you just sit still.

“We’ve got angry, and more angry, and angrier, it doesn’t help. People just got tickets to get on the gravy town and then closed the door. They eat alone,” Khululekile Ntula, 29, the dreadlocked youth league chairman of Ward 15, near Mthatha.

I know how he feels.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Still a little salty

This morning I went to pick my husband Gavin up from Cape Town airport. He’d been back to Scotland to say a final goodbye to our old dog Patch who departed for Elysian Fields on Friday. We’ll miss you so much old friend.

I got there just in time to see the British Airways plane touch down, its wheels smoking on the runway, and as I smiled at the safe landing, it was as if all those thoughts that have been spinning around in my head for the last few months also bumped gently to earth.

I’ve been back in South Africa for 3 months, partly to work, partly to interrogate my mind and my senses about where I belong. Do I belong in the shadow of the Magic Mountain? Do I belong in Britain? Am I South African? Can I be South African when I wasn’t even born here but feel so alive here? Is there a warm patch of earth for these roots that I’ve been so cavalierly carrying over my arm?

Seeing that big blue bird arrive with the other half of my heart and life made it all seem so clear. Yes, I am British. I am one of them. After all, I was born in Yorkshire and raised by two Yorkshire folk. But I was raised in the veld, next to a mielie field, and speak fluent Afrikaans and a smattering of Xhosa, and that makes me South African too.

Back in the colonial days, someone with one foot in Africa and one foot in the UK was called a Soutpiel - a Salty Dick because as your legs stretched across the world, your dick (if you were a man, and weren't we all back then?) would trail in the Atlantic.

My double-identity might still make me a Soutpiel, but I'm not a colonialist, and I never was. My parents arrived here as economic refugees escaping Thatcher's crushing blows to the hard industry of the North of England when I was just 5.

I'm a modern child of Africa, an immigrant, another happenstance player in an incredible, evolving tale of which I’m proud to have a bit-part.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Unknown dangers

While in Mbotyi I interviewed the teachers of Mbotyi Junior Secondary School. That is, I tried to interview them, but they wouldn’t give me their names. Why, I asked them. Why don’t you want to be quoted?

They certainly had plenty to complain about and had spent about 15 minutes showing and telling me what was wrong with their school: no electricity so no photocopiers, computers or phones; no proper furniture - desks designed for infants are being used by teenagers; and no classroom for Grade 8 who have to be educated outside.

“We are still living in the past,” said one. “There has been no changes at all. It’s just like before [1994].”
“It’s all empty promises. We are just the step ladders to get them into power,” said another. "They always blame the apartheid era. They put the blame on other, but it is them.”
“We are not paid according to our worth. There are so many things promised to get, and we don’t get. It’s not that we like that [going on strike], it’s because we don’t see any other alternatives to force the government to do it.”

With such strong views, why don’t they want their voices to be heard?

Again they refused to tell me why.

“Are you afraid of something?” I asked. “Are you afraid you will lose your jobs or be attacked if you speak out?”

Still they wouldn’t answer. I pushed again. And again.

“You journalists,” said one with a glint in her eye. “You are always digging.”

“But why – explain it to me,” I said, exasperated.

“We are afraid of the unknown,” said one, finally.

That’s all she would say.

I remembered this conversation this morning while reading an opinion piece by Mvume Dandale, COPE’s parliamentary leader in the Sunday Times, headlined “ANC goal is to stifle all critical debate”.

His list of stifling tactics include the Ministry of Police demanding recently that crime statistics be debated in private, the Minister of Justice refusing to share information about the latest arms deals of the government, and expulsion from parliament of COPE MP Mlukeli George. All pretty high-level stuff, but if you can’t have critical debate in the very corridors created for it, what hope is there for civil servants down on the bottom rungs?

That's definitely unknown.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The murky waters of Matheko

Matheko is home to about 5,000 Pondo people. It's about half an hour's drive from Lusikisiki, down a pretty decent dirt road. The headman of the village is a woman, Nontsapho Mathanda. There is no running water or electricity in the village so she has to send her mobile phone by taxi to town to get charged. It costs R19 for a round-trip and R5 for the charging, a total of R24 ($3).

Mathanda and one of her traditional councillors show me the water supply for Matheko village. The water bubbles up from an underground source, and there are many watering holes like these dotted around the veld.

Here Mathanda demonstrates how this water is used for drinking. She tries to convince me to try it, but I get a dodgy belly after a haloumi and pesto pita. I'm not sure my middle-class tummy can manage it. I awkwardly decline. She winks at me with a laugh.

Here local women gather water for cooking, washing and bathing.

The headwoman, her councillors and some hangers-on audition for U2's next album.

Headwoman Mathanda relaxes at home. Squint, and you'll be able to read what it says on her vest: ROLE MODEL. Indeed.


Friday, February 19, 2010

"The people like this voice. I am not afraid really"

This is Masukede Malindi, "headwoman" of Mbotyi. Her father-in-law, 75-year-old Alexander Malindi, has passed the torch of leadership to her. He had five sons, four have died, and the youngest Fezile is weak with TB. Headwoman Malindi is the widow of the eldest Malindi son.

Her husband, died of a mysterious illness. He complained of stomach pains and was dead three days later. The other sons had similar rapid deaths. In days gone by, this might have reeked of poisoning and conspiracy, but as a doctor explains to me later that night, untreated HIV/AIDS can kill with rapid stealth.

To speculate that someone’s death was caused by HIV/AIDS in this part of the world could be construed as slander, so heavy is the stigma. This is something that Headwoman Malindi wants to change.

She speaks with a soft voice, barely audible. “The people like this voice. I am not afraid really,” she tells me. I first meet her at sunset inside the large mint green rondawel where the family gathers to cook on a rainy night. The ashes of last night’s fire are piled on the floor, and the walls are blackened with years of smoke. The women sit on the left of the door, the men on the right. Fezile, the old chief’s only surviving son is doing some ironing.

As we sit in the hut, with the old chief listening in, Headwoman Malindi is quiet and Fezile does most of the talking. He tells me about the conflicts that exist between municipal councillors and chiefs. It’s a story of woe I’ve heard again and again, about how councillors are trying to wrestle the power away from the chiefs.

It’s a difficult one to report on because there’s so much hearsay, he-said/she-said and personal agendas. In an ideal world they would be working together - the traditional leaders sorting out community quarrels and misdeeds, and councillors taking care of development. Instead there's constant conflict between the old world order and the new. Between those born to care (or not), and those paid to care (or not). There’s no clear-cut baddie.

Simphiwe, a young local hiking guide, might not agree. Earlier in the day he’d taken me to see the river where people fetch water and had spent a great deal of time complaining about the old chief. “If there is a community meeting in our chief’s place and I say we need the road there, and he says no that is grazing land, if I fight that, he will say I want to see your father. When my father gets there, the chief will say warn your boy, he is naughty. So it’s bad. The youth are not scared to speak to the ward councillor.”

If the young headwoman has it her way, the young won’t be scared to speak to her either. “I want to change this direction from when the old chief was ruling before,” she whispered to me in her low voice, as we stood outside watching ducks and cows weave in between each other. “I want to change the minds of our people so we can sow together. Because of him, the people of our community are so divided. I want to change this thing. All people must be treated the same, not treated differently.”

I asked her what else she hopes to achieve for her village. “In this area we have a lot of needs. HIV means that children are living without homes and with other families. I want to create a food parcels for orphans.”

She also wants to get rid of the stigma around HIV. “If I’m not talking, if I keep it inside, then it’s a poisonous thing. It affects the heart and the body. Many people live with HIV but they don’t talk about it. I want to change these things."

Girl about the village

I met Ziyanda in Mbotyi. We walked for a while together along the dirt track that leads out of the village. Ziyanda is 25. She wears jeans, weaves her hair in dreadlocks and works as a lifeguard, tourist guide and waitress at the local hotel. I want to talk to her because I want to know what it's like to be a young woman living in a rural village. She smiles as she talks about her life.

She got pregnant at 15. “My mother was so crazy with me,” she says. By 16 she had two children, a boy and a girl. I asked if she was still with the father? “He died,” she says. “Of pneumonia. He was also a lifeguard.”

Being seriously ill in Mbotyi is a dance with the death. There is no clinic. The building is finished, it has a waiting room, toilets, a security fence, but its doors remain closed because electricity has not yet arrived in the village. Well, that’s not quite true. White people own holiday cottages along the beachfront and all their cottages have electricity. There’s also a lodge – where I stayed for two nights – and they also have power. It’s just the black villagers who don't. Apartheid lives on - courtesy of the local municipality. So until the power comes to the people, the closest clinic is in Magwa, a five-hour walk away, or if you can afford transport, the closest clinic is a 26km taxi ride in Lusikisiki. To get a private emergency taxi costs R300.

I asked Ziyanda if rape is a worry for women living here. She told me she was raped in 2003 when she was walking home at night time from work. “I was so scared. It’s not easy to be a woman, I can say. You are facing so many challenges.”

The sound of our footsteps grew louder at this point. My voice sounded loud in my head. At a glance Ziyanda looks like any modern girl about town. But the reality is, she's a modern girl about a rural South African village, and the odds are stacked against you. Ziyanda has experienced more hardship in her young life, than most women will experience in a lifetime. And yet she smiles. And laughs. And talks honestly.

I try to find a clever way to bring the subject around to HIV/AIDS, but there isn’t one, so I just blurt it out. I ask her if she knows how many people in this village have HIV/AIDS. She says no one talks about it. “We can’t talk about it. No one talks about it. In our culture it is so difficult to talk about sex. We’re not like white people who can talk about it.” I tell her my mother is from Yorkshire and never talked to me about sex and periods either. My first boyfriend was always just called “my friend”.

So what happens if you have HIV/AIDS? Can you not even talk about it to your best friend? “No, you can’t talk about it. Maybe to your family, but no one else.” But does everyone know about it? “Yes, everyone knows about it. We are very scared of it.”

If there is so much awareness and fear, does that mean that the HIV/AIDS rate will start to drop? “No. You see these young children who are now growing up. When the girls are 15 they will fall in love for the first time with a madala (older man) who will HIV/AIDS. He can’t talk to them about it, he won’t use a condom, and so they will get sick.”

I asked her if she wants to date a new boy does she ask him if he has HIV/AIDS. “Yes, I will ask him, but I can’t trust what he tells me. It’s very hard to find a new boyfriend.”

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Pondering in Pondoland

I’m back again in Pondoland, this time checked into a seaside tourist lodge in the village of Mbotyi. To get here you drive 26km down a paved-then-dirt road from Lusikisiki. Three quarters of the way a road signs instructs you to engage your lowest gear as the road cuts daringly down the side of a mountain. You wonder who built this road - and why? They must have really wanted a swim.

At the end of the road I meet the Irish. There are 60 of them. The receptionist had already "warned" me about them over the phone. I expected a mad adventure holiday gang, and was inwardly marvelling at ability of the Irish to organise a piss up in a brewery at the end of the world. Turns out that wasn't why they were here at all - well, not officially.

The Irish are a collection of builders, electricians, teachers, nutritionists, and 16-year-olds in their “transition year” – the Irish version of the gap year that they take while still at school – who are here with the charity Friends in Ireland to build what the local municipality haven’t bothered to.

I met them at the bar at the end of a long day. They were exhausted, covered in dirt and sweat from another day of building, but their eyes sparkled with what they’d achieved. For some of them, this was their fourth “patrol” in South Africa. Previously they’d built feeding stations for orphans in Franklin, Bizana, Flagstaff and Lusikisiki. This time round they were building a security office for one of the feeding stations, building a crèche in Mboyti, teaching musical skills and planting a garden at one of the schools to show the children how to grow vegetables.

I found this a bit odd. The people in this area are subsistence farmers. They live on the most fertile soil in South Africa and are famed in history for having homed and fed Europeans shipwrecked along this Wild Coast (which is why so many Pondo people have pale skins). Why do they need someone from Europe to teach them how to farm the land? I can believe children who live in a multi-story flat in Ireland might need to be taught that vegetables come from the ground and not a plastic bag, but out here?

It sounds like the owner of the Mbotyi shebeen was also a bit perplexed. He asked one of the Irish what they get out of this? Exactly why are they here? I think it’s a question worth pondering.

On the one hand you've got municipal councillors who are paid to bring key services to the rural poor, but don't, and on the other you've got Irish people who are donating their free time to raise money back home and then build services with that money. Why do they do it?

Brian, one of the Irish guys, told the shebeen owner that they can learn a lot from people out here. That people in Ireland have lost the run of themselves, that they've lost the values despite having everything. The same came be said for many people living in the West, but does that really explain why some people crave a front-row seat in the theatre of poverty? I asked him again: Why are you here? He shrugged and said: "You feel good when you go home."

That got me thinking about the feel-good feeling. Western society is so slammed for being individualistic, for being motivated by the pleasure principle and only doing things that make us feel good. We collect shiny baubles because they reflect back to our ego just how clever and successful we are. But is not perhaps that same ego, hungry to feel nice, that motivates us to do charity work? Do we perhaps care because it gives us pleasure?

The day before I'd interviewed the Queen of Pondoland (more on this later). The discussion had turned to the chronic corruption in the local Lusikisiki/Flagstaff municipality. I remarked that I found it incomprehensible that so much corruption was tolerated, especially since to my eyes, African people seem to have a greater duty of care for each other than people living in Western society. If your sister dies in African society, you must care for her children. In Western society, we'd only do it if it made us feel good.

The Queen remarked that this duty of care could be one of the explanations of the corruption." It comes exactly from African families taking care of their extended families. You get nepotism. It has riddled all these municipalities right now. Nepotism I think does have some traditional roots. Except of course now, politics also counts. But generally it comes from my feeling responsible to help my uncle’s brother-in-law, you just go back forever. And that’s why this corruption is in the tender system, because someone wants to take care of their brothers, their uncles, and with that comes kickbacks, bribes."

As I drove those winding Transkei roads, I pondered whether there's a misfit between the African duty of care and the western sense of Democracy. Democracy gives everyone ego a chance to stand up for their bit of the pie. But it works – perhaps – just as long as everyone is only fighting for enough of the pie to satiate themselves, to make their ego feel good. Democracy works because we are inherently selfish. As soon as I start fighting for enough of the pie to satiate everyone else, then it falls flat on its face.

There's my bit of bakkie philosophy. It's like armchair philosophy, just with a few more bumps and holes.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The black widows of South Africa

This is a taster from an investigation I'm working on...

"Thinking of your reason to meet me is very haunting. It is like digging what I want to forget. I think we need to arrange to meet face-to-face for your interview. We are about to go to lunch. Sorry to sound so complicated.”

I had been trying to get hold of Senior Chief Nokhakha Jumba for two days. It was broken wires and cross communication and when I eventually found her office in downtown Mthatha, the potholed capital of the old Transkei, she wasn’t there. She was across town at one of those rural development conferences where people arrive in high heels and Mercedes Benz. I felt like giving up. My gut didn’t. A few hours later this text message beeped through.

I wanted to meet Nokhakha for the same reason I’d been meeting her contemporaries: she’s a woman chief, one of a growing number in South Africa. Before 1994 and a new Constitution that guarantees equal rights for women, women chiefs were rare. The chief line passes from father to firstborn son, and if the father died before the son was grown up, an uncle or cousin would hold the fort until he was ready. Mandela changed all of this. “Mr Mandela insisted that the women as well become chiefs because everyone is equal in front of the people,” said Chief Nokwanele Balizulu, the woman chief who lives in a mint green house with pink linoleum floors directly across the road from Mandela’s fortified facebrick mansion in Qunu.

But not everyone shares Mandela’s vision.

The day before, in the wilting heat of a Sunday afternoon, I’d met Chief Lindiwe Ngubenani at a safe house near Mqanduli. Lindiwe is 27 years old. She was wearing a pink sundress and big loop earrings, and twirled her hair in her fingers as she told me her story. After her father died her mother became the chief of Mthonjana, a village of 84 homes near the hippy hangout of Coffee Bay, famed for its untouched beaches and marijuana plantations. The villagers protested. They spread rumours that Xolisa was not the real son of the chief, they insulted her, threatened her, and on 24 September 2007, they assassinated her. “They shot her inside the hut and then they burnt the hut and her body was lying inside,” Lindiwe said, the firstborn child who must take charge until her brother has completed her education. But she too fears for her life. “I am not at home now because people are not accepting me. About 10 homes out of 74 support me. People are divided. They say they cannot be ruled by a woman, especially by a girl.”

Looking at Lindiwe lounging on the brown velour couch, her mini-dress riding up her thighs, her flip-flops dangling loosely from her painted toe-nails, she doesn’t much look like a chief. I wondered how I’d feel if she was the person I had to go to whenever I needed a signed affidavit, or needed someone to mediate when my neighbour does some thing to harm me, or my family, or my land. It’s not something an urban South African would ever have to think about.

Democracy was fought and won in the cities, and people who live in the urban centres rely on the police and the municipalities to keep order - or at least a semblance. In the city, if your neighbour parks his car on your driveway every day without your consent, you complain to the police. In the village, if you neighbour’s cow parks itself on your grass every day, the police don't care. In fact, the closest police station is likely to be 50km down a rutted track and you don't own a car.

The chief is to the villager, what the head of the body corporate is to the urbanite. It’s the person who settles the squabbles and makes sure you all live peacefully side by side. Well, that's the job description. Not all chiefs are good chiefs. Some are cruel, harsh, lazy - made lazier by the recently introduced government salary - and those villagers saddled with a rotten egg protest that this system is out-of-step with the South African democracy. But there's also those chiefs who do care, whose heart and feet are from the soil. Rural residents in these villages prefer a chief who's in it for life, who's born to it, rather than an ANC-appointed municipal officer who's in it for 5-years and a fat pay cheque.

But what of the women chiefs? They’re a new breed. They’re neither born nor elected. They are widows. Black widows to some.

The Waiting Place

Remember this poem by Dr Seuss? For those who wonder what's it like to be a journalist, this about sums it up...

"Congratulations! Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

You’ll look up and down streets. Look’em over with care. About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down a not-so-good street.
And you may not find any you’ll want to go down. In that case, of course, you’ll head straight out of town. It’s opener there in the wide open air.

Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you.
And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along.
You’ll start happening too.

Oh! The Places You’ll Go!
You’ll be on your way up! You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights.

You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed. You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t.

I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.
You can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch. And your gang will fly on. You’ll be left in a Lurch.
You’ll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chances are, then, that you’ll be in a Slump.

And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.
You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked. A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin! Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose? How much can you win?

And if you go in, should you turn left or right…or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite? Or go around back and sneak in from behind? Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.

You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race, down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
And grind on for miles across weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.

The Waiting Place…for people just waiting."

In the frenetic, overly competitive world of journalism, this is the place where anxious freelancers rock back and forth, waiting, waiting, waiting, for busy overstretched editors to reply to their pitches. It's not unlike waiting for your teenage boyfriend to call.

I've found an amazing, exclusive story. It's a cracker. It wakes me up at night. And yet, the publication I was counting on might be able to offer me a one-page slot in June. Might. They did warn me about slashed pages, crushed budgets, a queue for Africa stories, departing editors, but I believed - foolishly - that if I came up with a great story, it'd get in there. The Red Sea would part. More fool me.

Anyway, we'll always have blogging. The placebo for the world's storytellers in this so-called information age.

Today is the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Last night the BBC World News ran a segment where the journalist who covered the release of Mandela came back to reflect on how South Africa had changed. Except he didn’t. He briefly interviewed Archbishop Desmond Tutu; Mandela’s former driver and bodyguard; a man in a township in Cape Town who now owns his own shop; and then he strolled nonchalantly past a few shacks and mused that people still live in poverty, but at least they are free.

Why bother coming at all? If that’s all there is to say after 20 years, you may as well have stayed at home and spared the carbon footprint. Tell us a real story.

Friday, February 5, 2010

At home with the Hlakulas

Here's some pictures from my two days spent as a guest of Faith Hlakula, her mother-in-law, Mrs Hlakula, and Thembi, Ana and Junior.

The road in, built by Walter Sisulu

Waiting for a lift to the far end of the valley

The sun goes down over my first night

African silhouette

It's a goat's life

Walter Sisulu photograph on the wall of Ellen Hlakula's house

Blink and you could be in Scotland

School's out, let the dancing for the camera commence

Faith and the Xhosa steamed bread. Yum

Samp and beans. My favourite African dish

The local teens dance for the camera to music on their mobile

Faith and me

Faith hard at work in her mother-in-law's kitchen

Jumping beans, Ana and Thembi

Ana, Thembi and me at dinner time

With my hosts (minus Junior, who was off playing somewhere)

Friday, January 22, 2010

"I don't believe in loans, I believe in bursaries"

Gathered outside Pachu General Dealer in Kanye, Eastern Cape, are a group of the village’s latest school leavers, the 2009 matriculants, already propping up the shebeen wall at 11am on a Friday morning.

The night before I’d met Ellen Hlakula, Walter Sisulu’s daughter-in-law. She lives in the biggest house in the village (with her own tap in the garden, no sharing). She said she was happy because democracy had brought change, but she lamented what alcohol was doing to the youngsters.

“Our problem is the bottle stores. There are so many bottle stores. They are disturbing our lives. Our children are drinking and taking drugs. We are so worried about that. Life is not all right because of the alcohol. They are drinking because they are not working. They are bored. This has made them corrupt," she said.

It’s not easy for “the youth of today” to have a good reputation at the best of times, but as I wandered around chatting to villagers, I realised the youth here have a reputation as either being layabouts who view democracy as their "right" to do nothing, or as thieves who steal from pensioners to fund their drinking. I wondered how they saw themselves.

Singalakha Mnquma (third from the right), 18, finished matric in 2009 at Loveday High School in Bhisho. He’s visiting Kanye, his family’s home village, for the weekend to attend a funeral.

"Democracy brings a lot of things, but I don’t know where they’ve ended up. It just brought grants for small kids, that’s the only thing I know about democracy. That’s a fact. There are no opportunities. There are more than 30 guys here who don’t know what to do.
Now I think there is no point in going to school. After you finish studying there are no jobs, we are just sitting here. In South Africa, I don’t know what’s going on. You just end up back here with your diploma.”

His friend, Sipheshle Hlakula (fourth from the right), 21, spent one year studying to be an electrician in East London after matriculating, but failed and now his parents can’t (or won’t, it wasn’t clear) pay for him to study further. “Life was way easier for my father and grandfather. In those days there were job opportunities. The important thing is to have a job. All I want is to have a job. Democracy has made me unemployed.”

The village pensioners I chatted with definitely agreed that it was much easier to get work in the dark days of apartheid, when trucks would arrive from Jo'burg and Durban to cart young men off to work on the gold mines and sugar cane plantations. I was always under the impression that people resented this migrant-labour lifestyle, but all the old fellas spoke fondly of these times. (It's also fair to say that the old fellas in Yorkshire talk fondly of WW2, and no one's wishing the world at war again anytime soon.)

What puzzled me though, and this is a topic on which I want to do more research, is where are the student loans for poor kids from poor, rural families? Surely they must exist, and if they do, why don’t these guys know about them?

I explained to Singalakha that most of my friends paid for their university/college education from a student loan, and are still paying them back. For kids from ordinary working class families, the only way to get ahead was to invest in your own future. His response: “I don’t believe in loans, I believe in bursaries”. It spun my head. We'd all love a rich fairy godmother to lubricate our way in life, but if that's who we're waiting for, we might have to wait by that pumpkin for a long time.

Looking back over the two weeks I spent interviewing people in this part of the old Transkei, one thing I heard over and over was: "The government hasn't... the government must... we're waiting for the government..." It was as if the government is a fairy godmother, with all the power and knowledge and magic dust to solve all the country's problems. And why do people think this? Is it because this is the message that the ANC government has sold to the people - as if they can buck the trend of every government the world has ever seen?

Where's the message that democracy does not equal communism? That to get ahead, you have to invest in yourself? There's no doubt the ANC has failed in its delivery of key services to rural people, but they also seemed to have failed to fill them in on what democracy really is good for - the freedom to make your own future.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

"We are free, we are under democracy, but there is nothing"

Mr Khawulezile Hlakula, 66, is the son of the brother of Walter Sisulu (nephew is not an African word), one of South Africa's great struggle leaders. Sisulu's real surname was Hlakula, but he changed it to protect his family during the dark days of the struggle. I met Mr Hlakula, 66, in the village of Kanye, near Ngcobo, where Walter Sisulu grew up. I spent two nights here as a guest of Faith Hlakula, wife of a Khayelitsha pastor, who invited me to her husband's village so I could experience first-hand life in rural South Africa.

In this village there is electricity, a decent-enough gravel road connecting the village with the R61 main thoroughfare into Ngcobo, running water in the form of 1 tap for every 15 homes, but no government-issue toilets. In the middle of the night you use a bucket, and in the morning, you take a walk to the corrugated shack surrounding a rudimentary long drop at the bottom of the maize field.

Mr Hlakula sought me out, because he had a lot to say...

"Ask people here and they'll say you are the first lady who comes here and asks us what we feel, what we need. Government didn’t do that. There was not one single person here from government to ask, hey, what do you feel? What do you need, you people here? No. We wrote a letter straight to government saying we need this and this and this. We get no reply. We get no reply.

You must say the white government before was good because that government was keeping the pressure on, you grew up under pressure. This government says this is democracy, but there is no democracy to us. That government was putting the pressure, keeping us doing what that government needs. Now you can say, I’m free, but you get nothing.

About 1 million people are not working, but the government don’t send any delegate to come and see why these guys don’t work, why they are suffering because they cannot get education. They don't try to get education straight to the people – no, not like that. That old government was very good, really, because we were not suffering from work at that time.

You see, the difference, we are free, we are under democracy, but there is nothing. There is no work, no money, no nothing. You can’t have education without money. There’s a lot of guys here who have Std 10, they are suffering, they do nothing. They are drinking. It’s our democracy that creates that. At that time we were under pressure. At that time, you’d never see a young person here. You’d never go to the bottle store and buy a bottle of brandy. That was a good government. Now it’s free for everyone to go get a brandy or beer to drink. Those things are going to spoil our children."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"I feel closer to a country like Somalia"

“I will never vote again. If a political party gives me work first, then I will vote for them. The political leaders want votes from us, then after they get the votes they forget about us and go and help other nations and other areas. If something is happening in Mozambique, they make sure they help out there, but they forget about the lives of the people in their area. I think they know the local people will always vote for them, that’s why they don’t care about us. They think we are forced to vote for the ANC because there is no one else. But if the other parties can try and up their game, maybe political parties like the ANC can wake up.

I don’t feel part of South Africa. Here in the Transkei, I feel closer to a country like Somalia or Zimbabwe, countries suffering from starvation. We are getting poorer and poorer. There’s no hope. You see people complaining on the TV about service delivery and instead of changing, things are getting worse. We’ve given up. Especially in the villages. We have given up because things are not getting any better."

These are the words of Ntombi Sobuza, 34, from Ntlaza village in Pondoland, responding to my question of how life had changed for them since 1994. She spoke to me through a translator. I met Ntombi in the spaza shop at the Isinuka sulphur springs about 10km outside Port St Johns. There were about 15 people gathered out of the rain in this dilapidated shack shop, all wellness seekers who had travelled from villages around the Transkei to bathe in the sulphuric waters, sniff the sulphuric gases (which they call 'avicksini') and paint their skin with the white clay that lines the pools that's known to cure skin ailments. It's the Transkei version of Iceland's Blue Lagoon, except here it's free to take the waters. Which is a good thing, because Ntombi, like all of the other people who were here to take the waters, is unemployed.

Does she have hope? "We are pinning our hope on 2010, that life will be much more better. Maybe they are going to be asked to be strikers of Bafana Bafana, and then they will get a lot of money," she jokes.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The sick heart

Well, I wanted to find out about the beating heart of this country, and today I found it was on a life-support machine. Well, it would be if such high-tech equipment existed at the Isilimela Clinic at the end of a 17km dirt road, potholed and scarred by years of heavy rains and forgotten promises.

“It is cleaner than when I brought my father here,” commented Jimmy Selani, my translator, as we sat outside the wards, waiting to corner a doctor or a nurse. “We took my father home to die. You don’t come here to get better. If God permits you, you live, if not, you die. It’s not their problem. People are just here for the jobs, to get their salary at the end of the month. They don’t smile. If you are in hospital, you need encouragement, you need hope, you need to be encouraged to get better, but these people don’t care. They just want their money at the end of the month.”

We managed to corner a friendly Nigerian doctor who had been working at the clinic for a year. He helped me to speak to Nurse Cynthia Qikani who had been at the hospital since 1987. I asked how things had changed over the 15 years of democracy – had services at this hospital improved?

Her answer stopped my heart.
“Before 1994 everything was going good. We had doctors, nurses, equipment and services. In 1994 we thought the change was all for the good. We can’t blame the government, but we are blaming them. We are in a dilemma. As time goes on there is a constant decline.
We used to order medical equipment from a central medical store. Now we have to use tenders and the process is very slow. It is not easy to get equipment. It takes from six months to a year to get new equipment. It used to take one month. We are failing because the tenders are failing us. It is difficult for us to get basic equipment like blood pressure testing machines, urine sticks, blood sugar testing equipment. We have it now but the tenders are not able to meet our demand."

I asked her why the ANC is forgetting its people.
“I think they do try and improve services, but I think the government needs to evaluate now they way it is going because we are going nowhere.
We have five wards and two nurses, but the government says there is no money for nurses. We need more staff, more doctors, and we need we need people who are actually well-trained and competent in charge of the tenders.
If you were to draw a graph, it would go down, down, down, and just recently start to curve up. I don’t have hope yet. We have been more than ten years without nurses and we’ve been promised and promised a tarred road, but it is just talk.
In November 2009 we got a visit from the Department of Health and they said they are going to fix the road. We believe them, but to say is not to do.”

I leave with my heart on my knees. The Transkei is the birthplace of the ANC. Mandela’s home in Qunu is just over 120km from here. This is the homeland for the people who struggled to bring freedom, democracy, equality and prosperity to the majority of South Africans. So why have these people been forgotten? It is a disgrace on this nation that in 2010 there is no tarred road to this hospital and that the furrows in the dirt are so big outside the main gates that I even struggled to mount it in a high wheelbase bakkie.

“Thank you for coming, because that shows you care,” said Cynthia. “Maybe you can tell people what it is like and maybe one day things will change.”

This is one of the most beautiful regions in South Africa. The land is fertile. The climate fantastic. You know your neighbour. It seems obvious that the government would want to provide health services on par with the cities so that people don’t feel they have to flee to depressing squatter camps on the edges of Jo’burg and Cape Town chasing a better life.

The better life could be here. If the comrades wasn’t so busy buying fancy cars.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Driving Miss Pondo

Around me the night whirrs and croaks. I’m back in Pondoland. Today I drove 3 ½ hours from Port Shepstone to Thea’s place just outside Port St Johns. I’d romantically imagined spending the journey marvelling at giant African sky blues, but instead my amazement was saved for the potholes. Oh, for a chauffeur.

Of course, most people round here do have chauffeurs. That is, people are crammed into the back of minbus taxis, enduring the curves and the bounces without any say as to how fast or slow they go.

Steve Biko railed against white liberals who wanted to be part of the struggle, but then went home to their cushy white lives and the end of a day of protests and underground meetings. He argued that if they really wanted to be part of the struggle, they should step out of their privileged lives, their privileged education systems, and get one of the menial jobs that were only on offer to black people at the time. That they could never be truly part of it because they didn’t know what it was like to live it. I felt a bit like that today. There’s me wanting to know what beats in the heart of South Africa, but I don't want to travel by minbus taxi. Why? Because I don't have the need, the need for speed.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a minibus taxi service for wimps? “We promise to take longer than anyone else to get there," would read the bumper sticker on eSlowCoach Taxis. They would obey the speed limit, take hairpin bends at the recommended 40km and 60km and never, ever overtake on a blind corner. They might even play soothing whale music. Of course, it’d cost a little bit more, but I could live with that. And so would everyone else.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


"Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul."

William Ernest Henley

I have often wondered how Nelson Mandela kept going through his 27 years in prison. How he came out with his head high and his compassion intact. This week I learned that this poem Invictus was part of his armour. Now I’ve added it to mine.

Invictus is also the title of the film (directed by Clint Eastwood and based on the book Playing the Enemy by journalist John Carlin) that tells the true story of how Madiba (Morgan Freeman) inspired Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), then captain of the Springboks, to lead his men to victory in the 2005 Rugby World Cup.

Many of us remember the big picture that played out on the world stage culminating with Madiba, in the Number 6 jumper, handing the World Cup trophy to Pienaar after the Bokke beat the All Blacks against all odds. This film teleports you behind the scenes of Madiba’s first year in office, revealing the details of his tactical and compassionate brilliance, and his ordinary humanity.

This is not, as I had half-expected, a feel-good Hollywood flick that makes white rugby-loving South Africans feel better about how sport saved the day. It’s a film about the hard choices of leadership and about finding inspiration when it seems thin on the ground. It’s also funny, Freeman is utterly convincing as Madiba, and Matt Damon's South African accent is unfaltering. Whatever you do, don’t miss it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

One step forward

And so from the scorched valleys of the western Cape, I ended up after Christmas in the lush sub-tropical Transkei Wild Coast, to walk 61-km along the coast of Pondoland, home of the AmaPondo people.

I won’t lie to you, I was nervous. None of the stories I’d heard so far were positive. Two friends who had done the hike had been struck down with coma-inducing tick-bite fever. My brother – who is a confirmed racist – advised I carry a knife in my hiking socks to fend off hungry Xhosas. “They’re not what they used to be,” he said. And a colleague from TIME who spent the last elections reporting from the trading centre of the region, Mthatha, professed it to be one of the worst places in the country, a shame on the nation, and could not fathom why so many people thought this was a nice place to go on holiday. I packed an extra bottle of insect repellent and went anyway.

The journalist turned out to be closest to the truth. Mthatha has become one of the world’s great shit holes. The best business to be in – there are at least two on every street – is funeral parlours, a testament to the HIV/AIDS crisis crippling this country. The second best business is abortions. Peeling off lamposts, shop windows and dustbins are home-printed signs advertising safe same-day services by Dr Mark for just R250. A rival charges R300 for “Womb cleaning & blood detoxification, 100% safe and pain-free”.

But, Mthatha is not Pondoland, nor is it rural South Africa. It might be 1,300km from Cape Town and even further from any decent standard of living, but it is a city. The aim of my research is to get beyond urban voices, so I breathed a sigh of relief when the taxi drove past the last abortion poster and sped off down the R61 towards Port St Johns.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Taking the plunge

Anyway, enough of the white guilt. Rather let me explain a bit more about how this Open Society media fellowship came about. During the 2009 SA elections, one headline in the international press caught my eye: “Will Zuma bring tribalism to South Africa?” (BBC online, 23 April 2009).

To my mind, at its worst it questioned whether Jacob Zuma, a former goatherd and proud African traditionalist who had emerged from a welter of corruption and rape charges to run for president, would lead South Africa into the Heart of Darkness. At best, it worried that Zuma's polygamy and fondness for dancing around in animals skins were an indication that the rest of his values were out of step with the ideals of democracy – political tolerance, the rule of law, gender equality, independence of institutions.

It got me wondering what life was like now in the old Transkei, Ciskei and Kwazulu, those parts of the country where tribal leadership had been the order of the day during the apartheid years? How had democracy changed the life and values of people who live so close to the land, in villages where there are still headmen and chiefs? Do they feel part of the progress or left behind? What parts of the new-found democracy do they value, and what parts do they wish had never landed on their doorstep? What has been lost and gained in the last 15 years?

We tend to take for granted that democracy is the holy grail of political rule. But are democratically elected councillors as effective as headmen and chiefs in metering justice and keeping the peace, and how are these two systems of government working together?

Around the same time I started sussing out the Mail & Guardian jobs page every week. I wanted to come home, but I didn’t just want to lie on the beach for a holiday, I wanted to make myself useful. When I spotted the Open Society fellowship offering funding for researchers to look into meanings of democracy in modern-day SA, I saw an opportunity to take part in a chapter of this country’s story. I’ve learnt to swim. Now it’s time to jump in at the deep end.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Larnies in the Lallies

The first person I met in Pondoland was the last person I expected to find there. Thea Lombard is a single, white, blonde 59-year-old Afrikaans woman. On paper she sounds like she should be running a nice bed and breakfast in Hermanus (and until five years ago, she did), but this is a woman who long since leapt off the page.

"I've nearly had about four head-on collisions here today," laughs Thea, as she steers us up the 1-km dirt track to her house. "I keep thinking this is my drive-way, but it's not, it's actually a road. My poor neighbours," she cackles again, hooting and waving at a neighbour who swerves and waves back.

Five years ago Thea sold up her life in the western Cape and bought a derelict old farm 10km outside Port St Johns. With the help of waifs and strays – who are drawn to her like moths to a flame, myself included – she has created a chill-out lodge/culinary haven called the Wild Coast Kitchen which blows your mind.

There are 11 rooms, and on arrival your pillows are scattered with "Transkei rose petals", ie. fresh marijuana leaves. The bar, lounge and dining room are in a huge thatched central house with glass walls overlooking a misty tropical valley with a river winding through it. Guests are invited to dine together each night and sample Thea's inventive dishes. On our first night she spent three hours nurturing wood coals, and then seared fillet steaks directly on the coals, shaking off hot embers before serving with a yoghurt-based sour lemon and garlic sauce. Truly divine.

We had a free day before the hike began, and Thea piled us into the back of her 4x4, with another wild waif she had just picked up in Port St Johns, stopped to buy four Transkei Dumpies (750ml bottles of Black Label) at the local shebeen, and bounced us down “the worst road in the Transkei” to the village of Umgazana, where she has her own holiday hideaway.

The idea that a white Afrikaans woman had her holiday cottage in the middle of the lallies (adapted from the Xhosa, a rural village) threw me. Most white folk in this country build electric fences to keep the swart gevaar (black danger) out. But it turned out she wasn’t the only one. Umgazana is full of little holiday cottages, right next door to thatched Pondo huts, where white families decamp for the December holidays. Supposedly the whiteys “bought” the land from the local chief years and years ago for a bottle of brandy and a bit of cash. Apartheid, it seemed, was a good idea for most of the year, but not at Christmas. How very Christian.

With democracy, however, these cottages are now on the endangered list. The government has declared it illegal to build within 1000m of the high-water mark, and has already burnt down similar cottages in other Wild Coast villages, only to feel the wrath of the local people. The whites, as it turns out, bring much-needed revenue to these small villages. They pay the ladies to clean and look after their children (nothing has changed there) and they buy their freshly picked mussels, crayfish, oysters etc.

Though it wasn’t always that way. I chatted with Sophelina Mbuzeni, 62, an Umgazana grandmother who cares for a brood of 15. I asked her how things had changed since the end of apartheid. “Things are better now. It used to be difficult to get close to white people. You used to go to their houses to sell them fish from the sea and they didn’t want you to come near them. They believed you were dirty and had lice. That attitude has changed," she said.

This attitude shift certainly made a difference for Thea. She bought her cottage from the whites themselves, a white wife to be exact, after her husband was found enjoying a bit of rumpy-pumpy with his black lady neighbour.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Learning to swim

“When I was a child growing up in the village, I didn’t even know we were oppressed. You saw that the white man came by in a fancy car and that the black man always drove an old broken car, but you thought that’s just the way it was meant to be. You called the white man Nkosi (boss) and his son Nkososana (little boss), and you lifted your hat when they went past. That was just the way it was. We enjoyed our lives. We didn’t see the oppression," says Jimmy Selani, South Africa's Best Emerging Guide of the Year 2004, and our guide for the first day of the hike. Usually Jimmy treads the whole 61km, but in December he puts his feet up and gives young guides a chance to make some money to pay towards their education.

His words take me back to the first time someone in Europe asked me what it was like to growing up under apartheid. No one had ever asked me before, and I didn’t know how to answer. What was it like? It was like ordinary everyday life. Like Jimmy, I didn’t see the oppression.

Black people rode on different buses because they lived in different places to us and those buses didn’t go to where I lived, so I didn’t ride on them. Black people had a different entrance to the shops because they ate different food to us and they sold that other food in the other part of the shop. It sounds impossibly naïve now, and it makes me cringe to admit it, and even makes me doubt my adult critical reasoning faculties, but that was just the way it was.

You were a child growing up in a country where the press was censored; where sanctions, for all their good, also made us isolated from international debate. In fairness, I have South Africa friends who also say to me “I can’t believe you didn’t know”. But they were privileged to be the children of professors and politically astute, educated people. My parents were economic refugees from the imploding hard industry of Yorkshire, crushed under the mighty fist of Mrs Thatcher. They’d got married at 19, had three children, and in 1982 when I was 5, after two years of being on the dole (a great shame in those days), my dad found a job making beer bottles in Olifantsfontein. We never had a black maid because my mother believed you must clean your own house. That’s how it’s done in Yorkshire and that’s how it was done in our Yorkshire bubble in Benoni.

A child’s life isn’t like anything other than the life it is. We’ve got so much to take in, in those early years, we have to take a lot at face value, otherwise we’d never get off the ground. I wish I could say I was a child of the struggle. I wish I’d been old enough to protest in the 1980s and wear defiant T-shirts. But I was busy learning to swim.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A long walk to freedom

We shared our hiking party with four Afrikaners who initially eyed us with suspicion. They later confessed over some Transkei dumpies they’d been worried we’d label them racists because they’d hired two black local porters to help with their backpacks. All was forgiven when they realised we too were doing our bit to “boost the local economy”. With John, our porter, Tsepho, Mandla (Power) and our path finder Coach, we were 10 in all, following the beaches, goat trails and cliff-top paths that carve the way from Port St Johns to Coffee Bay.

That first day saw us cross the Umngazi River, alongside which Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel spent their honeymoon, and meander down long sandy beaches with only cows for company. It was New Year’s Eve, and as the day drew in, we arrived at our first VBA (village based accommodation), a roomy thatched hut with an inside toilet and shower, and an uninterrupted view of the Indian Ocean. In the world of VBAs, this was 5-star.

As we took off our boots and took in the view, our hostess and cook Linah, 29, offered us milky coffee and doorstops of white bread. We asked her how life had changed since 1994. “Now we have electricity and water, but other than that, nothing has changed. Life is good here. Look around, the people here are fat. If you have mielie meal you can get oysters or mussels or crayfish from the sea,” she said. Later that night we ate Linah’s African chicken surprise washed down with Black Labels from the local shebeen, and then joined some larnies from the lallies to sing Auld Lang Syne and bring in the bells.

The days thereafter melded together in a lazy blur of mangrove swamps and rickety row boats; cream soda green thatched huts and cartwheeling children; bungled attempts to learn Xhosa and haltering conversations in English; the cool of a sea breeze at the crest of a long hill.

I remember Mandla standing bare-chested on the edge of a green cliff-top, the wind whipping through his red T-shirt as he held it high above his head, framed against a brilliant blue sky.

I remember the young men in Burberry-style suits strutting down a crowded beach on January 2nd, showing off their status as recent entrants to manhood after surviving the Xhosa initiation ritual.

I remember our porters buying crayfish from local divers and cooking them fresh on an open fire. I felt like one of those jammy people you read about in foodie magazines who can conjure up exotic dishes in out-of-the-way places with the same way ease that I can fry an egg.

But most of all I remember the mama who stopped and welcomed me into the village of Hluleka. “Be free here. You are welcome. We have no crime here. Please, be free,” she said, enveloping my hands in hers as I reached the top of the last hill of the third day.

Ironic that the fight for freedom was won in the cities, but only out here, miles away from the safety of electric fences and 24-hour security guards, can you feel really free.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

We'll always have Parys

Spent Christmas with my family on an olive farm in the Tulbagh valley in the Western Cape, about an hour and half’s drive from Cape Town. It’s a valley for vines, olives, fruit trees, and according to the sign that greets you on the other side of the windy Nuwe Kloof Pass: This Valley is For Jesus. Well, it was Christmas after all. It’s also one of those towns in South Africa that have blossomed under the back-to-the-countryside trend that has emerged here, and in Europe, over the past five or so years, hand in hand with the organic movement and the awakening of our environmental consciences.

In South Africa, though, I think this return to our roots has even more poignancy. There was a time not too long ago when we would have done – and did - anything to flee from these sleepy hinterland faming dorps (villages). People used to poke fun at places with names like Parys and Paternoster, perhaps because their Afrikaans names reminded us too much of the “Afrikaner” politics that we were only starting to become collectively ashamed of, and to collectively bare the blame.

And perhaps also because after years of sanctions and pariahdom, we were now finally allowed to rejoin the world community. Hell, why would you stay in Parys when you could go to Paris? And then we remembered why. Because of the undiluted stillness of the Karoo and the Free State and the Western Cape. Because at night, the giant clear skies shimmer and sparkle as brightly as when you jet over a world city. Because there's hundreds of beautiful solid old farmhouses with giant stoeps (balconies) begging for a lick of paint and an art gallery to be installed on their creaking wooden floors.

In Tulbagh there’s a sweet coffee shop/deli/boutique/gallery called Things I love. Unfortunately the knick-knacks for sale are way overpriced, but sitting on their balcony, overlooking the tree-lined Church Street, feels a bit like being at granny's – if your granny was very stylish and subscribed to Vogue, that is.

The other great thing about Tulbagh is that you can get there by train.
There aren’t too many weekend destinations accessible by rail, but you can jump on the MetroRail in central Cape Town, and be in Tulbagh 2 ½ hours later.

And what more can I tell you? It was your typical family Christmas where you spend half your time squabbling with your mother and the other half feeling guilty about it. Me and the rest of civilization. Enough said.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Becoming African

It was 1995 when I first saw the Transkei. I say saw, because all I did was spy it through a car window. At speed. Doors locked. Windows wound. Don’t stop until you get to Umtata Shell Ultra City. It was the year after South Africa’s first democratic elections. Before then most Rhodes University students who lived in Durban used to make the long journey home via Bloemfontein, adding another 500km to their journey. Now our country was united, the border posts that separated the Republic of South Africa from the homeland of the Transkei were unmanned, and the unrest and bloodshed that had rocked the Transkei – of which I understood nothing – was over. We were free to travel through this unknown land. As long as we didn’t get out of the car.

As I drove with my then boyfriend back to his parent's Natal home, I felt like a child in an old-fashioned sweet shop, where the tasty treasures and pretty colours are stacked on top of each other, behind glass, way out of reach. The Transkei is not a flat land. Hills grow out of more hills. Smartie coloured thatched huts speckle downy green slopes. The road winds and curves and then when it forgets to bend, chances are you’re on a mountain plateau and any moment the world either side will drop away to reveal a deep valley. It was a world away from the brown brick block-like architecture favoured by the apartheid government, and to my 19-year-old eyes, it was as if someone had stolen my blindfold.

I’d love to tell you that this was when I was inspired to discover the heartlands of the country that raised me, but that would be a lie. Rather, my naïve, anxious 19-year-old self was relieved when we were spat out the other side, back to the safety of straight roads and neat rows of Natal. It took another 15 years and 40 countries before I got that itch.

It happened one wet evening in Glasgow. It was raining. Again. A grumbling, misery-packed cloud had blacked out the sun and we’d lit a fire in a rusty oil drum to keep warm. It wouldn’t have be so bad, but it was mid-summer’s eve and we’d invited everyone we knew over for a braai. Fortunately the Scots are never ones to let a downpour dampen their spirits, but for me it was the beginning of the end.

For ten years, like so many other restless souls, I’d been using the Queen’s sodden island and its Great British Pounds as a springboard from which to gorge myself on the world. I’d notched up adventures that one day might impress my grandchildren, but as the rain made a mockery of our summer party, I became restless in another way. Restless for roots. Warm roots. There was just one problem: the country that raised me wasn’t there any more.

It’s neat, dull, whites-only streets had been replaced with vibrant, colourful potholed roads and going back would mean facing up to a horrible truth: that as much as I like to believe I am the captain of my soul, I’m actually damaged goods. Like the rest of my generation, I was a child of a racist political system that raised me to have no knowledge or understanding of how the majority of my fellow South Africans lived, thought, felt, were. Racial segregation didn’t just mean black people couldn’t participate in white society. It meant white people couldn’t participate in black culture. It meant we were ignorant of the place we called home.

How could I crave to put down roots in South Africa, if I didn’t even know it? At best, that craving would be disingenuous. At worst, it would be a craving for the past. And so, with the help of a journalism fellowship from the Open Society Foundation, I set out to go back to the old Transkei, the land that raised Mandela and Sisulu and Tambo, and this time, get out of the car. Some might think I’d be better off going to the urban townships of Soweto or Khayelitsha, to find the pulse of modern South Africa. But I know enough to know that every black South African keeps one foot in the village, one foot in their heartland, and if you truly want to understand something, you need to go to the source.